· Yolande Mukagasana, a nurse who was a victim of the Rwandan genocide explains why reconciliation is possible in her country ·
More than 20 years have passed since the genocide in Rwanda. After a slow process of rebuilding, the people have committed themselves to the even more difficult task of reconciliation. Yolande Mukagasana, a nurse of Rwandan origins and Belgian by adoption, lost her entire family.
From this trauma she drew the strength to write a book of testimonies in which she gives a voice to both victims and oppressors. Her main concern is the future generations, as her project of building a school in Rwanda beside a monument testifies. “So that the children may know the full history of the genocide, preserving only its positive aspects: a school where the pupils are first and foremost defined as Rwandans, without any ethnic distinctions”. In this, Yolande is convinced of it, the young will need to be accompanied by women, “mothers and reconcilers”. “For children, women are like a religion”, she declares. “Religion touches our consciences, our hearts, it is within the person”. Therefore Yolande rejoices when “The children of victims marry the children of oppressors”, she feels that forgiveness is so deeply rooted in the Rwandan culture that it can even “function in the case of blood crimes”. “I think that it will be the precisely the next generations who will save us”, Yolande Mukagasana concludes, “as long as they are allowed to grow up with the values of love, of the fight against hatred, and of living together”.
Twelve years have now passed since the genocide in Rwanda. What have you done since then?
I have not got stuck in the epoch of the genocide, I have rebuilt. All the Rwandans want to rebuild a country that no longer exists. Everything was destroyed during the genocide: human lives, material things and institutions. Nothing was left, everything had to be recreated. The women really were the first to take part in the reconstruction and for me this is a cause of pride. It is also one of the reasons why I returned: I wanted to bear witness to the genocide throughout the world, because I realized that the world had not understood what had happened in my country. It’s quite clear, some people did not want to understand. Some oppressors had preceded us to preach their own gospel. I was absolutely determined that my voice should prevail over theirs, and I think that in many countries I have succeeded. In Les Blessures du Silence I made the oppressors testify. I wanted the oppressors to talk about the genocide, to tell of what they did. This was the main reason why I wrote the book, which contains interviews with both victims and oppressors, as well as with the righteous.
What happened inside you?
I had to know: am I capable of living in Rwanda, of looking my family’s executioners in the face? At the outset I didn’t believe in reconciliation because I saw what Rwandans had done to each other. I wondered how to get up in the morning and see the face of my family’s executioner. In the end I realized that the Rwandan population had the desire to rebuild and that it had succeeded. Beware! It is not an easy process and is still under way.
How do young people experience what happened?
It is here that the role of women fits in. Women are mothers, reconcilers. I noticed one thing. There are polygamous men. In our country polygamy is forbidden, the law says so. But everywhere I have seen a woman with children by different fathers, these children got on with each other well. By contrast, in the case of a father with children by different women, those children did not get on with each other at all.
Yes, it’s a personal observation, here as in Belgium and everywhere that I have lived: women are stronger than men, especially as regards their children’s education. Of course they are not stronger in everything. The woman is like a religion for her children. Religion touches our consciences, our hearts, our inmost depths. And the transmission of values from a mother to her children takes place in a very interior and intimate way and therefore has a greater impact on her children and will make them adults with values, especially the value of love.
Reconciliation, in a certain way, passes through education....
For me, education is a sine qua non condition for an entire people to be able to evolve. In Rwanda a population torn apart during the genocide has been taught “to live together”. If someone who was not a murderer becomes one it is because something happened. What happened? It was in fact realized that many Rwandans knew how to read and write and knew their history, their true history, not the history revised by colonization. However it was also noticed that some people had not understood. They had been listening every day to Radio Rtlm, [deemed complicit in the genocide since it had incited people to eradicate the Tutsi], because it entertained them and broadcast good music, but at the same time it dragged them into the ideology of genocide. All those who read newspapers from different sources and knew other languages did not easily allow themselves to be conditioned in this way. During the genocide, rewards were even promised to those who killed more people. And this is how it was. In the face of all that, people realized that education was truly basic.
Tell us about the project you care most about….
Today the Rwandan State has equipped itself with a project called “Je Suis Rwandais” [I Am Rwandan]. I shall open a nursery school with the same name. At the time of the colonization we were identified as Hutu or Tutsi. That identity card has long been abolished and we are now identified by our true identity: I am Rwandan before anything else. I therefore want the children to grow up in this spirit, because I have realized the importance of education. The children who learned divisiveness, in the evenings in the kitchen with their mother or talking to each other, subsequently became instigators of the genocide. It is now necessary to ensure that children have the strength to say “No, this is not what we are taught at school”. For at that time divisiveness was precisely what we were taught. Today the values we would like children to grow up with are different: love, the fight against hatred, “living together”. I am Rwandan.
In the years that followed the genocide you thought a lot about the subject of reconciliation. You went to South Africa and to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to reflect on the ways, not only to reach forgiveness but to go beyond the genocide….
I am interested in both forgiveness and reconciliation. I did not understand how it would be possible to forgive what had happened, how people could live together once again and be reconciled. Yet in the end I realized that all this that is part of our culture, from long before the colonial period. It all begins with truth, with confession. This is the first thing: that the guilty person should want to seek forgiveness. If someone who has done you a wrong does not want to ask your pardon it is because he or she does not like the idea of your reconstruction. Well, until you rebuild yourself they in turn will not rebuild themselves, they will remain blocked in that hatred.
All this as regards the request for forgiveness. But to forgive?
It is not hard to forgive when someone asks you to. In our culture, when you had wronged someone, you asked for forgiveness from the family first of all, and confessed the wrong committed. The other person had the right to forgive or not to forgive. But they always forgave each other. The only difference is that there were not yet blood crimes, appalling crimes like the genocide. I thought too that all this wouldn’t be able to work with blood crimes. So what could we do? It seems to me – but I might be wrong – that there are two points. The first is the presence of forgiveness in our culture, as I explained. The second is that Rwandans married one another, not troubling about whether they were Hutu or Tutsi, especially in Butare where I was born. It was said that Butare was the country’s intellectual city because it was there that the Catholic Church had developed and because there was a university. I believe this is the reason why the genocide began very late in Butare, after 20 April. The President at the time had to go in person to incite the people to kill one another. I think, however, that it was also one of the reasons for forgiving one another. Why? Let us suppose that your brother-in-law came to kill your husband.... Your children are cousins: how could they be prevented from living together? Impossible. For me it is really beautiful to see that still today the children of victims marry the children of executioners. Thus we have one starting point thanks to our children. I think it will be precisely the next generations who will save us.
Is the memory of goodness stronger than the memory of evil?
Of course. The memory of evil destroys, whereas the memory of goodness builds. Where I want to open my school there is a memorial that would enable the children to understand the history of that genocide. I do not want them to retain the horror. I would like them to preserve only the positive aspects. I would therefore like to create there the first garden of the righteous. The righteous will come to give their testimony to the children, sitting in that garden. The garden of goodness, precisely, where people will speak who refused the evil at the risk of their own lives, people who have done good. Thus the children will know the complete history of the genocide, retaining only the good. They will try to be like the good and not like the wicked.
Charles de Pechpeyrou
Born in Rwanda in 1954, Yolande Mukagasana was an anaesthetics nurse for 19 years at the hospital in Kigali, the capital. She was then head nurse at the day clinic which had been opened in this city. The victim of the massacres which devastated her country in 1994, she survived the genocide of the Tutsi but lost her family and friends.
During the 100 days of the genocide for most of the time she hid in the bush. She was even offered hospitality in a house in which one of the executioners was then living. Having sought refuge in Belgium, she acquired Belgian nationality in 1999. However, her professional skills in the health-care sector have not yet been recognized there. She returned to Rwanda in 1999, accompanied by Alain Kazinierakis, a Greek photographer, to interview both the victims and the oppressors of the 1994 genocide. Their meticulous work resulted in the book Les blessures du silence. Temoignages du génocide au Rwanda. However, Yolande Mukagasana has also written other texts on the Rwandan genocide: plays, short stories, autobiographical accounts. In her book La mort ne veut pas de moi she tells how she lived with the fact that she survived while her husband, her three children, her brother, sisters and other family members were killed. Today she visits Rwanda frequently but does not live there permanently because she is haunted by memories of the tragedy.
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